District of Columbia Dog Bite Law

A dog bite victim in the District of Columbia can recover compensation under the doctrines of negligence, scienter and intentional tort. This is a mixed jurisdiction. There is no dog bite statute but a victim is not required to prove scienter if a dog bites him while the dog is at large and if the dog is at large because of its owner’s negligence.


The District of Columbia has two statutes that, read together, eliminate the requirement of scienter in one specific set of circumstances: where the dog that bit the victim was at large because of its owner’s negligence. The two statutes are section 8-1808 and section 8-1812, set forth below. Other than that, the victim has to prove negligence, scienter or intentional tort. This is a contributory negligence state, so a victim who is negligent even insignificantly is barred from recovering compensation for the bite. 


The statutes

Section 8-1801(a)(1)(A) defines “at large” as follows: “The term “animal at large” means any animal found off the premises of its owner and neither leashed nor otherwise under the immediate control of a person capable of physically restraining it.”

Section 8-1808 states “No owner of an animal shall allow the animal to go at large.” 

Section 8-1812 provides, “If a dog injures a person while at large, lack of knowledge of the dog’s vicious propensity standing alone shall not absolve the owner from a finding of negligence.”

It has been held that if a dog bites a victim while the dog is at large, the violation of section 8-1808 is not necessarily negligence per se, but only evidence of negligence. Chadbourne v. Kappaz, 779 A. 2d 293 (DC Court of Appeals 2001). The Chadbourne court approved the trial court’s instruction to the jury, which was that an owner “allows” an animal to “go at large” if he “(a) intentionally permits the animal to go at large, or (b) fails to exercise due care to keep that animal from going at large. In determining the care required, you may consider the propensities of the animal known to the owner.” In other words, “allow” means to intentionally allow or to negligently allow; it does not mean “suffer” in the sense of “suffering” the dog to go at large.

These statutes therefore create a single exception to the one bite rule: the victim is not required to prove scienter if a dog bites him while the dog is at large and if the dog is at large because of its owner’s negligence.



Negligence is the lack of ordinary care; that is, the absence of the kind of care a reasonably prudent and careful person would exercise in similar circumstances. If a person’s conduct in a given circumstance doesn’t measure up to the conduct of an ordinarily prudent and careful person, then that person was negligent. For example, letting a stray dog into a day care center is negligence. In this jurisdiction, negligence that results in a dog attack will make the negligent party legally liable to compensate the victim, provided that the victim is blameless (see Contributory Negligence, below). For more information, see Legal Rights of Dog Bite Victims in the USA.



The traditional doctrine that makes a person liable for harm inflicted by a domestic animal is referred to as “scienter” (the Latin word for “knowingly”), “common law strict liability,” and “the one bite rule.” As it applies to dog bites, this doctrine holds that a victim can recover compensation from the owner, harborer or keeper of a dog if (a) the dog previously bit a person or acted like it wanted to, and (b) the defendant was aware of the dog’s previous conduct. For more information, see The One Bite Rule


Contributory negligence

The District of Columbia is unkind to accident victims in general, and dog bite victims are no exception. DC adheres to the ancient and inhumane doctrine of contributory negligence. This doctrine prevents a victim from receiving any compensation if his or her conduct was even an insignificant cause of the accident. Other states and countries have adopted the doctrine of comparative fault, which “compares” the legal responsibility of the victim and the other parties, and provides compensation to the victim in direct proportion to the comparative responsibility of the parties (i.e., if the dog owner is 90% responsible and the victim is only 10% responsible, then the victim’s compensation is reduced by his or her 10% of fault). The time has come for DC to get in step with the rest of the country and replace contributory negligence with comparative fault.